What do you say?
You know you should say something. You want to say something. It will be awkward if you don’t say something. But what?
You know your friend is suffering. You know times are difficult. And you desperately want to comfort them in some way. But there are two words, easy to say, and very well-intentioned, that can actually do more harm than good:
The reason these words can do more harm than good is because you don’t understand. Not really. No one does.
I remember many years ago now when we were walking through a difficult time. Our 2-year-old son had been diagnosed with leukemia and was in the throws of chemotherapy. There were painful side effects for him, and emotional side effects for his parents. And then, after three and a half years, it was over. Our then 6-year-old was cancer free, and as the years have gone by since then, we have moved to a place where we visit the oncologist only once a year for checkups.
Over the course of the years since then, there have been many times in which we have crossed paths through one means or another with families in a similar situation. Children with cancer diagnoses, parents living in and out of the hospital, brothers and sisters trying to cope. And when we first started meeting people like this – people like us – I would sometimes use these words.
“I understand,” I would say. And I did – in part. I understood about the ups and downs of treatments. And I understood about the mouth sores that form when a child takes oral chemo. And I understood about the emotional roller coaster that steroids cause when a child has to take them. I understood about the counseling appointments, the fear of every test that rolls around, and the apprehension of tomorrow. I understood, and yet I didn’t understand. Not really.
That’s because every single one of those situations were different. The people had different personalities. The child responded in different ways. The family dynamics were differently expressed. And so I stopped using that phrase because, frankly, it wasn’t true. I did not understand. Not completely. Not fully.
I’ve come to think there are better ways to serve those in pain than these two words. One of the most simple is through presence – to be around and to listen. To ask questions when appropriate. To weep with those who weep. To not just ask, “What do you need?” but to anticipate those needs and proactively meet them without being asked. This is real help. This is real care.
And along with them, to remind ourselves that the only person who can truly, really, wholly say these words into the lives of our friends is Jesus Himself. He understands, even better than we understand ourselves. Let us then pray for those in pain, that they would hear the compassionate voice of the Son of God through the way we minister to and serve them. That they would deeply know that Jesus knows and understands, even though no one else does:
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens—Jesus the Son of God—let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin. Therefore, let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in time of need (Heb. 4:14-16).